Look at the genre conventions for the topics you're writing about, and make your new information conform to the expectations in the genre. On a larger level, look for opportunities to structure information around stories in the user journey, as this will provide a more natural organization for the information. Identifying the journey will require you to look across the help topics, both inside and outside of your product, and at the many decision points and frictions users experience.


In previous topics, I analyzed how integrating new information into the larger landscape and conversely distilling information from a larger landscape into smaller units both help to reduce the complexity of information**. In this article, I’ll dive into another technique for simplifying complexity: making information fit a pattern or schema that is familiar to users, especially story schemas**. Our mind constantly filters the events, objects, and information around us by ignoring irrelevant information and fitting the important details into mental schemas. These schemas allow us to operate efficiently in what would otherwise be a complex chaos of incoming sensory information. As such, using these schemas simplifies the user experience.

One approach for fitting information into the user’s mental schemas is to look at genre conventions and user expectations, and then follow these same conventions and expectations in the new information. However, this approach does little to exceed expectations in a genre of dissatisfied and frustrated users. A better approach is to fit information into a larger user journey that looks from beginning to end across topics, rather than focusing on one specific topic. This larger, more encompassing journey contains more of a story arc that resonates on a universal level with users.

How I first started exploring this topic

Recently, at work, I was asked to do a competitive analysis of a competing product. I’d never written a competitive analysis before, and I started by gathering as much information as I could about the competitor’s product. I reviewed previous analyses on similar topics, looked at developer surveys, read feedback, ran through sample scenarios with the product, and more. After about a week, I had a long file that contained seemingly endless notes on a variety of topics. My notes were a jumble of random observations, questions, details, half-written sentences, screenshots, references, and other information that I’d been gathering as I forayed through the competitor’s product and app submission experience.

I needed to structure this jumble of information in a way that would make sense to users. This is a task we all face when confronted with large amounts of information that we need to organize and present to users. I face similar scenarios when I’m preparing presentations or even when writing posts like this one. What principle do we use to group, structure, explain, and otherwise present large bodies of information in ways that makes sense to users? What is the structure that will both engage the user and organize the information in a smooth, coherent flow? More importantly, how can we make complex information more readily consumable and usable to readers, reducing its complexity? To fully answer this question, we’ll explore script theory, genre conventions, schemas, and story.

Script theory

One way to reduce the complexity of experience is through a psychological principle called “script theory.” In the latest edition of Communication Design Quarterly, Kirk St. Amant, a tech comm professor in New Orleans, explains that script theory refers to the routines and behavior we follow automatically and unconsciously based on the stimulus from objects, people, and other triggers in a particular space. These reflexive responses can be a good technique for making complex spaces more usable.

Here’s an example of this stimulus-response interaction. When checking into a hotel, users encounter the lobby, receptionist, concierge, waiting area, check-in desk, and other details that trigger users into an automatic routine based on previous experiences. Almost without thought, when users encounter these “prototypes of space” (aligning with their previous details in similar spaces), they know what to do, the routine to follow, what’s expected of them, and what to expect from others. Their actions and responses seem to have been scripted, like a play that has already been written out. Actors perform their roles almost in an automated way.

Script theory originates from work by Silvan Tomkins (you can read more about it here). By prompting users with the right stimuli — stimuli that align with the prototypes the user associates with that space — you help users naturally move about and operate in that space. Following the expected conventions allows users to easily filter out the immensity of detail of a new space (the hotel layout, new faces, lighting, noise, etc.) and get their task done without much thought. St. Amant explains:

By catering my design to meeting your experiences, I make these items easier for you to use in that context (Reflexes, Reactions, and Usability: Examining How Prototypes of Place Can Enhance UXD Practices, Communication Design Quarterly 6.1 2018).

Years of experience in certain spaces or situations build up expectations for those spaces and situations. When your design matches those expectations, users can naturally plug into the workflow and process the objects and information in that space in an almost unconscious way, fitting the information into the mental model they’ve already formed. What might otherwise be a complex experience — figuring out where to check in, who to ask, what to present, how long it will take, what information you need, what will be asked of you, etc. — is minimized because the experience has already been scripted, so the mind doesn’t need to figure it out from scratch.

As another example, think about the experience of driving along the freeway. How can users go 65 MPH on a congested freeway, navigating through multiple lanes, exits, pullouts, traffic conditions, and other patterns as well as read signs and follow map routes with so few accidents? Freeways are highly predictable from state to state, so they trigger expected driving behavior. The freeway provides a predictable experience that aligns with user expectations, which reduces the amount of cognitive attention drivers must devote to the task. As a result, you can listen to an audio book while driving and also munch away on food at the same time — your brain isn’t strained to try to make sense of everything. It just follows the script.

Genre conventions and usability

St. Amant’s article focuses on the usability of spaces (as does Tomkin’s theory), not so much on texts or documentation. But he does briefly mention how script theory applies to texts as well. St. Amant says, “when we generate texts – such as user manuals or instruction sets – we could be using a mental model of how elements in that space are organized to guide what we write.” In other words, every genre has certain expectations around it. When you align your text with these genre conventions, you make it easier for users to find, navigate, and absorb the information.

One of the first steps to organizing and presentation information, therefore, is to understand the expected conventions in the genre. With some genres, the information has such a strong convention that going against it would create confusion and disorientation. In an article on the usability of medication information, Henk Pander Maat and Leo Lentz explain that European regulations recently required companies to follow a new template for medication information that didn’t align with user expectations. As a result, users had trouble locating the information. Maat and Lentz explain:

Text genres come with corresponding genre schemata or move structures, specifying what will be discussed and in what order. Genre conventions serve readers by providing a collectively shared shorthand for interpreting information (Kostelnick & Hasset, 2003). They help readers scan a page and identify relevant information on the basis of structural expectations. For instance, an experienced reader of scientific articles in the experimental tradition is thoroughly acquainted with their structure (Swales, 1990), and the same goes for book reviews (Toledo, 2005), and application letters (e.g., Henry & Roseberry, 2001; Upton & Connor, 2001), to mention just a few well-established text genres. (Using Sorting Data to Evaluate Text Structure: An Evidence-based Proposal for Restructuring Patient Information Leaflets, Technical Communication, 58.3, AUGUST 2011)

For the many different genres of information — scientific articles, book reviews, recipes, personal essays, press releases, white papers, sales reports, help topics, blog posts, etc. — there are conventions that readers expect (whether they’re aware of them or not), and when authors follow these genre conventions, readers can more easily locate, navigate, and make use of the information.

The prototypical help topic